Butter him/her up, steal one's thunder, garbled, rat race

Created date

May 17th, 2019
A man runs frantically on a hamster wheel.

In its current form, the phrase “rat race” is another label for a competitive field, namely in business. The idiom, however, comes from the jazz world of the 1930s and referred to dance parties, otherwise called “rat races.”

Butter him/her up

When you butter someone up, you’re trying to curry favor with them. But why “butter”?

The answer comes from ancient India, where it was supposedly common practice to toss balls of ghee butter at the statues of gods in order to gain favor with them. In time, this tradition produced the label that we now use in reference to what is popularly known as “buttering someone up.”

“They tried to butter him up by taking him out to expensive dinners.”

Steal one’s thunder

This one has a surprising origin that takes us back to eighteenth-century England, when John Dennis put on a play at the Drury Lane Theater.

In 1704, Dennis opened a production called Appius and Virginia, for which he designed a device that mimicked the sound of thunder. The play was a failure, but not his thunder machine, which the theater continued to use for other productions.

In response, the furious playwright exclaimed: “Damn them! They will not run my play, but they steal my thunder.” Now we use the phrase in reference to situations where somebody preempts another person’s bid for attention or glory.

“He stole her thunder by announcing her idea to the group without her permission.”

Garbled

We use the word “garble” in reference to mixed-up or muddled communication, but originally, the term had a more nefarious connotation.

“Garbled” comes from the Arabic word “gharbala,” meaning to sift or sort out. By the 1600s, English speakers used “garble” to describe the sifting of information for malicious purposes (i.e., intentional misrepresentation).

Over the years, the element of malice faded and the word simply came to mean mixed up or incoherent.

“I couldn’t hear what he said because our phone connection was garbled.”

Rat race

In its current form, the phrase “rat race” is another label for a competitive field, namely in business. The idiom, however, comes from the jazz world of the 1930s and referred to dance parties, otherwise called “rat races.”

“It’s tough to make it as an actor; show business is a real rat race.”

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